Empty Carolina blue and green football field
Kenan Stadium at UNC-Chapel Hill is empty while ACC teams figure out what to do amid coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

By Anne Blythe

North Carolina, which has seen a jump in COVID-19 cases among college students during the past month, was one of the states added this week to the “red zone” by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Deborah Birx, the task force’s coronavirus response coordinator, was in North Carolina on Wednesday as part of a multi-state tour effort that began earlier this summer.

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Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, outlined highlights from a meeting that she and Gov. Roy Cooper had with Birx, who raised concerns about the number of people she saw in North Carolina not wearing face masks.

North Carolina recently turned up its reopening plan “dimmer switch” just a notch to allow gyms, fitness centers, museums, aquariums, and yoga and dance studios to open with limited capacity.

That came as college campuses across the state were reporting COVID-19 clusters of five or more related cases, and children in K-12 schools in some districts were returning to classrooms.


Though the number of people showing up to emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms has declined steadily since late July, Cohen has said that North Carolina continues to see too many new cases daily. She also has noted that the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests is higher than her team would like, too.

“While our trends and indicators continue to show gradual, but steady progress on slowing the virus, this progress is fragile, and frankly not as good as we or Dr. Birx of the White House would like,” Cohen said. “We continue to simmer, and while we have avoided boiling over like some other Southern states, some parts of our state have plateaued at a stubbornly high rate of viral spread.”

Cohen, Cooper and Birx talked about the need to get viral spread under control on college campuses, many of which opened in mid to late August with ambitions of having dorms and classrooms humming with students, albeit masked ones, until Thanksgiving.

But cluster after cluster of five or more related COVID-19 cases caused many universities to reverse course and move to remote, online instruction instead of in-person classes.

Campus residence halls closed and students either moved back in with their parents or into off-campus rentals in the college towns and cities where they were.

Cohen said it is too early to know whether the students are spreading COVID-19 through the larger campus communities, but her public health team and Birx are paying close attention to what happens in this state and elsewhere.

In Pitt County, the home of East Carolina University, one of the UNC system schools that closed down in-person classes for undergraduates, the positivity rate was 11.9 percent, more than double what the public health team wants to see, according to the DHHS dashboard.

“We agreed with Dr. Birx about the need for widespread testing on college campuses and talked about our work with higher education institutions and local health departments to help surge testing resources for the on- and off-campus community,” Cohen said. “We want to support isolation and quarantine capacity and support their active surveillance strategies.”

In Chapel Hill, home to the first college campus in the country to halt in-person classes this semester, the UNC-Chapel Hill provost posted an update earlier in the week for the campus community about voluntary testing for on-campus and off-campus students over the next two weeks.

Testing can be costly, and Cohen said that she, Cooper and Birx had talked about the federal government helping out with such endeavors.

“Dr. Birx offered federal support to help surge testing on college campuses, which is greatly appreciated by both the state and campus communities,” Cohen said without elaborating on what that support would entail.

Woman and college student pack bags into an SUV
After UNC-Chapel Hill halted in-person classes for undergraduates due to coronavirus clusters, students move out of on-campus dorms. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Maskless Trump

The Birx visit was the day after President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Winston-Salem at the tarmac of the Smith Reynolds Airport.

Neither Trump nor many in the crowd wore face masks. The crowd, estimated by the airport director to be 6,000 to 7,000 people, according to the Winston-Salem Journal, was much larger than the 50-person limit mandated by the governor’s Safer At Home Phase 2.5.

The Trump campaign attempted to get around the crowd-size limitation by calling his campaign event a protest, which the governor’s order allows as First Amendment-protected speech. Most of the people at the tarmac were not spaced six feet apart from each other.

“The governor emphasized that we need national leaders to model effective prevention strategies, like wearing a face covering and waiting six-feet apart, and for them to take these measures to protect North Carolinians when visiting our state,” Cohen said Thursday as she highlighted details from the meeting with Birx during a briefing with reporters.

Birx wore a face mask and reiterated the importance of “getting behind the mask” and other social distancing measures at her meetings and public events in North Carolina.

Cohen said the presidential advisor complimented the new ad campaign encouraging mask use.

Bob Woodward tapes, Trump and ‘deadly stuff’

Birx’s visit was the same day that recorded interviews between Washington Post reporter and author Bob Woodward and Trump were released to much publicity and debate.

In the Feb. 7 interview, Trump relayed a conversation he had with China President Xi Jinping about the coronavirus in which he compared it to the flu, calling it much more deadly.

“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward in the conversations that were released as part of a publicity campaign for “Rage,” his new book on the president. In the March 19 interview, Trump tells Woodward that even though he knew how deadly COVID-19 could be he always wanted to “play down” the coronavirus because he didn’t “want to create a panic.”

Cohen was asked Thursday whether the state would have mapped out different plans for North Carolina’s pandemic response had Trump been more forthcoming and sounded a more dire alarm from the outset.

“The state had been preparing for COVID before it even had a name,” Cohen said. “We had multiple pandemic plans in place and back in January, well before we saw a first case here in North Carolina, we were already activating our work here to prepare.”

Early on in the pandemic, though, Cohen and Cooper publicly called out the federal government for not delivering on badly needed testing and personal protective equipment supplies.

As the state worked to round up its own supplies, the governor issued a statewide Stay At Home order within weeks of North Carolina’s first case so that health care systems could prepare for an expected onslaught of cases.

“We were able to keep the viral spread very low while we built our capability to respond to this virus,” Cohen said. “We’ve come a long way. We both know much more about this virus now, how it is transmitted, how we can prevent transmission, so we’ve done a lot of work to make sure we have our capacity to respond but also know how to prevent the spread of this virus.”

‘Stubbornly high’ plateau

“As we’ve been talking about today,” Cohen added, “we’ve plateaued at this stubbornly high rate of viral spread. I know we can head back in the right direction. We started to do that in the beginning of August, then we had our higher ed and other university settings open, then we saw an increase in cases. I know we can head back in the right direction if we all work together.”

In addition to talking with Birx about surging testing on university campuses and the need for national leaders to model good social distancing behavior, Cooper and Cohen brought up several other issues.

They discussed the need for more funding for personal protective equipment, steady access to the reagents, or chemicals, necessary for laboratory testing, additional funds to continue support of vital child care programs, and an extension of the pandemic free and reduced lunch program beyond Sept. 30.

They discussed the federal government’s plans for distribution of the Abbott BinaxNow rapid tests as well as vaccine planning guidance and timing.

Though North Carolina has much work to do to get the spread of COVID-19 under control, Cohen said the state is doing better than many of the other southeastern states in the “red zone.”

“While we have higher cases per capita than the nation for the last seven days, we have one of the lowest rates of viral spread in the southeast region,” Cohen said

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 2,990 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 180,754 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 928 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 156,652 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 2,521,839  tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the coronavirus tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (41 percent). While 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 352 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,216 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 893 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.